Tag: Art History

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

The pleasures and pitfalls of art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.


“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”


There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it’s our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.


Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

The Notebooks of Paul Klee

"Ingres is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and, going still further, from motion."
“Ingres is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and, going still further, from motion.”

Paul Klee was a painter who wrote extensively about color theory. His lectures, Writings on Form and Design Theory, taught at the German Bauhaus school of art in the 1920s, were published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks. They are considered as important to modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.

Giulio Carlo Argan, in the Preface to the first volume of Klee’s notebooks, writes:

The writings which compose Paul Klee’s theory of form production and pictorial form have the same importance and the same meaning for modern art as had Leonardo’s writings which composed his theory of painting for Renaissance art. Like the latter, they do not constitute a true and proper treatise, that is to say a collection of stylistic and technical rules, but are the result of an introspective analysis which the artist engages in during his work and in the light of the experience of reality which comes to him in the course of his work. This analysis which accompanies and controls the formation of a work of art is a necessary component of the artistic process, the aim and the finality of which are brought to light by it …

Herbert Read called the collection “the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.”

And now, these astonishingly beautiful works of art are available online (Volume 1: The Thinking Eye (PDF, 23 Megabytes), Volume 2: The Nature of Nature (PDF, 43 MBS))

If you’re like me, prepare to spend the rest of your day in this treasure trove of amazingness.

Paul Klee 1
Paul Klee 2
Paul Klee 3
Paul Klee 4
Paul Klee 5
Paul Klee 6
Paul Klee 7

Still curious? The notebooks make an excellent addition to your budding art library.

Rembrandt — The Power of Art

You’re a painter. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you: neglect, derision, disgrace? Worse than all these misfortunes is to have to mutilate your masterpiece, the bravest thing you’ve ever tried. That’s what happened to Rembrandt in 1662.

That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to Rembrandt in his amazing book: The Power of Art.

20 years before, when Rembrandt was in his 30s, Amsterdam couldn’t get enough of the young master. “Over and over he had confounded expectations, and expectations adjusted accordingly to whatever it was he had done.” He was on top of the world.

By 1660, when Rembrandt was in his 50s, he

was living in a modest dwelling on the Rozengracht, opposite a pleasure garden. There were drunks in the street, knife fights on the corner. The tongue-clickers now saw him as someone from whom things had called steeply away: credit, property, the benisons of the mighty. God did not distribute fortune idly, so the truisms of the pious had it. Thus, in some fashion, Rembrandt’s fall from grace must have been ordained as a caution against sinful pride.

But then a lucky break. The Amsterdam elite desired a monumental history painting for their new town hall. Govert Flinck, their first choice for the job, unexpectedly died leaving Rembrandt with an opportunity to redeem himself and change everything.

The commission would be one of a series of paintings illustrating the history of the Dutch.

Together the cycle of histories would remind Amsterdammers that, while they were not themselves masters of an empire, their history began with an act of virtuous insurrection against the arrogance of the Roman Empire.

Rembrandt’s work would be the most important. He would be painting the Batavian leader Claudius Civilis at “the very moment of swearing his brethren to pledge their lives to the liberty of the Fatherland.” If he succeeded, Rembrandt would clear his name and return to prosperity.

The result was something no one expected and for the ruined painter it was a massive gamble.

Everyone knew about Rembrandt’s ruffian audacity; his regrettable imperviousness to the niceties of decorum, personal and professional. But with all those reservations, the civic worthies must still have been unprepared for what they got from his hand.

Rembrandt: The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis

Wanting to save face, the worthies decided that letting it hang in the hall was better than leaving a vacancy where the masterpiece belonged. However, a few months later they changed their mind. “It’s confrontational coarseness” was too much and they ordered it removed, rolled up, and sent back to the artist. Rembrandt didn’t receive a penny for his work. Someone else, someone predictable, was hired to fill the space. They knocked off a painting in record time. “It might have been the worst painting on public display anywhere in the Netherlands. But no one complained.”

If Rembrandt wanted to rescue something from his masterpiece he would have to cut it down from the enormous arched space it was designed for into something for a residential buyer. So the cutting began.

You can learn more about Rembrandt by watching this Power of Art BBC series .

Still curious? Pick up a copy of Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series.

Bernini — The Power of Art
Caravaggio — The Power of Art

The Château de Versailles: From The Seat of Power to The Museum Of The History of France

The Palace of Versailles, also know as The Château de Versailles, began as King Louis XIII’s hunting lodge. It is now considered one of the most beautiful achievements of 18th-century French art.

The son of King Louis XIII, Louis XIV, expanded the palace and moved the government and the court to Versailles in 1682. The improvements continued until the French Revolution, when the château “lost its standing as the official seat of power.” In the 19th century the château became the Museum of the history of France.

Thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, we can now tour these amazing grounds.

Versailles after the French Revolution

From gardens to Trianon palaces


Still curious? Check out the official Château de Versailles website. If you use Google’s browser, Chrome, you can also take an interactive stroll around the palace.

The Power of Art: Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Continuing my quest to learn more about Art, I present to you Gian Lorenzo Bernini — the Pope’s architect, the supreme sculptor of Rome, a man who practiced Jesuitical discipline every day.

Where should we start? Can you look at this picture with an innocent eye?

Bernini: Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

I thought not. A french aristocratic connoisseur passing through Rome on the Grand Tour, the Chevalier de Brosses, took on look at the sculpture and remarked: “Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”

“Gianlorenzo Bernini,” Simon Schama writes in The Power of Art, “cared a great deal about likeness, to the point where he redefined it as more than appearance. True likeness — the kind he wanted to capture in his sculptures — was the animation of character, expressed in the movements of bodies and faces.” At the time it was thought that only pictures could generate “the sense of being in a warm-blooded, living presence.” Bernini proved that sculpture could as well. “Stone could be made to pulse with natural action. Out of the smooth, chill marble would spring human action.”

Bernini wasn’t a fan of straight standing people in status. “His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation.” By taking chances with risky drilling, Bernini would make marble do things it had never done before. “He,” writes Schama, “made it fly and flutter, stream and quiver.”

Modesty was not one of Bernini’s failings. But then again, there was, according to Schama, never a time when he had not been hailed as a marvel. If anything, it’s surprising he didn’t have a bigger head. His father, a sculptor, paraded and promoted him as extraordinary. At the age of 8, a sketch of Saint Paul ‘with free bold strokes’ astonished Pope Paul V to the point where he thought he was looking at the next coming of Michelangelo. “To nurture his talent, Paul V appointed Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to watch over the young Bernini and to shape his education. The Cardinal was so smitten that he remarked to (the boy’s father), ‘Watch out, Signor Bernini, the pupil will surpass his master,’ to which the proud father replied, without any apparent testiness, ‘In that case, Your Excellency, why should I care, for the loser then also wins!'”

Years of what all sculptors had to do — study and draw from classical models — followed. Even boy wonders had to learn the rules.

Bernini would later say “Those who never dare break the rules never surpass them.”

Bernini was only 15 when he made The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo in 1613.

Bernini: The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo

How could the Cardinals not compete for the services of the young prodigy? Bernini would repay this confidence with a procession of masterpieces:

Bernini: The Rape of Proserpina
The Rape of Proserpine


Bernini: Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne


Bernini: David

But his big break was just around the corner.

When, in 1623, Maffeo Barberini become Pope Urban VIII he pounced and, unlike Apollo, got his way. Bernini was called into the papal apartments and given a famous acclamation: ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere [for Bernini had been knighted in the Order of Christ by Urban’s predecessor, Gregory XV], to see Maffeo Barberini Pople, but we are even more fortunate in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of our pontificate.’ It was now no longer just a matter of making sculpture for a private patron, even one as grand as Scipione Borghese. What Urban VIII had in mind for Bernini was nothing less than the remaking of Rome — its secular buildings, churches and fountains – always with the busy-bee emblem of the Barberini on it. Even for the officially acknowledged prodigy, brimful of self-confidence, this must have been a giddy prospect.

* * * * * *

To learn more about Bernini, watch Schama’s introduction to Bernini.

Still curious? Pick up a copy of Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series. While you’re at it, check out E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.

The Power Of Art: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

“The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs.” That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to art in his fascinating book: The Power of Art. The first character he introduces us to is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

From the start, there are only two things you need to know about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: that he made the most powerfully physical Christian art that has ever been painted, and that he killed someone.

When you look at Caravaggio’s art you respond physically.

[Y]ou look at Caravaggio’s shocking painting of himself as the severed head of the Philistine giant Goliath (below). And you see something that had never been painted before and would never be painted again: a portrait of the artist as ogre, his face a grotesque mask of sin. It’s an image of unsparing self-incrimination and it certainly makes you wonder.

Caravaggio: David and Goliath

This is an artist who reminds us he’s there.

The great breakthrough of the Renaissance painting had been perspective, the depth punched through the far side of the picture plane. But Caravaggio is more interested in where we are, in the space in front of the picture plane which he makes a point of invading. Looking at the outflung arms of Christ in his Supper at Emmaus (below), 1600-01 (National Gallery, London), you almost duck to avoid the impact. Caravaggio isn’t a beckoner—he’s a grabber, a button-holer; his paintings shamelessly come out and accost us, as if he were crossing the street and, oh God, coming our way. ‘You looking at me?’

Caravaggio — the last supper

In many ways the Roman Church had been waiting for Caravaggio to help with the “greatest propaganda campaign that Christendom has ever seen.”

Assailed by the northern European Reformation, it (the Roman Church) was in dire need of a sacred visual drama that simple believers could respond to tangibly as if it were acted out in their presence. Much was at stake. Images were not just an incidental sideshow in the religious war between Catholics and Protestants; they went to the heart of the matter. For Lutherans, the Word written in the Holy Scriptures was everything. The claim of the Roman clergy, from the Pope down to the parish priest, that they alone held the keys to salvation, and that redemption could only be achieved through the mysteries and rituals of which they were the guardians, was dismissed by Lutherans as a wicked and presumptuous fraud. And at the heart of what they perceived as institutionalized deception were images: the pictures and sculptures of saints and madonnas, of the Saviour and even (the most shocking blasphemy, this) of the Heavenly Father himself. These were the idols, the painted mummery, by which the credulous were kept infantile, held in thrall by the Pope of Rome and his minions. They were, thundered the Lutherans, a plain violation of the second commandment, which forbade ‘graven images.’ So along with the secret distribution of vernacular Bibles, the most dramatic expression of the Protestant revolution was the destruction of images. On to the bonfire they went, in the Netherlands, Germany, England and in the reformed Protestant Swiss cities of Geneva, Basel, and Zurich.

Shaken by the scale and fury of the destruction of images, it took little time for the Roman Catholic Church to mount a counter-attack. … Instinctively as well as intellectually the Church Fathers knew that, since the vast majority of men and women in Europe were illiterate, images were still the most powerful way to instruct the masses and hold their allegiance. To do otherwise was to condemn the poor and unlettered to ignorance, heresy and, ultimately the damnation of their immortal souls.

Instead of backing off, they created more.

Sensibly, they conceded that there had been abuses and extravagances in some of the art that had found its way into churches: depictions of fabulous wonders done by dubious saints that were little more than fairytales; liberties taken with the likenesses of the Father and the Holy Virgin; even some gross indecencies that made images more like distracting entertainments than objects of reverence. All of those corruptions would go. Henceforth, the Council decreed, sacred art would be in the spirit of the Saviour himself: modest and austere. It would forgo the seductions and pagan profanities of worldly beauty for the supreme vocation of instilling piety.

They had one problem: no one knew what such art would look like. The Church wanted images that were both naturally simple and accessible; the Renaissance masters for the common folk. Yet the talent at the time was, in Schama’s words, “limited.” Luckily for them, Caravaggio rose from obscurity.

Caravaggio: Boy Bitten by a Lizard

Of course, if you had a mind to, you could read Boy Bitten by a Lizard, c.1595, as a warning against sexual mischief. Just in case you hadn’t cottoned on to the bitten digit and the thorny rose, a smirking local would have told you that on the streets, ‘lizard’ was slang for ‘penis.’ The wound inflicted on the saucy lounge-lizard with the flower tucked behind his ear was, then, the bite of the inevitable social disease that visited innocents hooking up with the kind of girls Caravaggio and his pals favoured. Much more important than its snigger value, though, was the work’s function as a composite portfolio of all the talents that Caravaggio was pitching. Here was someone who, from the detail in the waterbowl in which his own studio was reflected (making the painting a double-disguised self-portrait), was a dazzling master of illusionist naturalism — the first quality that those in the market for raw young talent would seek. But then the perfectly rendered moment of recoil — body thrown back facial features contorted in pain, skin flushed with a rush of blood — also advertised a master of body and face language, someone who could make visual and extreme passions in just the way Leonardo had demanded of any truly ambitious history painter. … for those who had eyes to see, this was the work of a stunningly strange virtuoso.

Caravaggio: Young Sick Bacchus

The strange virtuoso got stranger.

Perhaps it was when he got out of the hospital that Caravaggio painted his Sick Bacchus, 1593-4 (above). The very idea of it, nevermind the way it was executed, was an outlandish challenge to the conventions. Bacchus, after all, was not just the god of wine and revelry, but one of the patron deities of dance and song; and as such he had always been depicted as a perpetual youth. Caravaggio, however, turned him into a literally sick joke. The lips are grey, the eyes leering, the skin unnervingly shallow, the overloaded wreath of vine leaves around his brow excessive rather than festive. By painting himself as an overdressed party animal the morning after, Caravaggio upended the conventions. … It’s not just a joke; it’s a revolutionary statement of intent. The whole point of art, according to its Renaissance theorists, was the idealization of nature. Caravaggio had just announced that his business would be the naturalization of the ideal.

Caravaggio brings off this unnerving marriage between the pure and the vulgar with a showy skill that no one had seen in Rome since Raphael.

The reality effect made Caravaggio great. “And that startling immediacy,” writes Schama, “owed everything to his strategically calculated lighting.”

Caravaggio discovered

(Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte) was hungry for culture — science and mathematics, as well as music, history, poetry and painting. And one way in which the cardinals of Rome established their place in the aristocratic pecking order was by cultural taste and patronage. … del Monte was on the lookout for promising talent. All he had to do was cross the street to Spata’s art shop to see The Card Sharps. When he had seen it he must have known he’d struck gold. Caravaggio was made an offer: board and lodging; studio space on the top floor of del Monte’s Plazzo Madama; and, best of all, patronage, not only by the Cardinal himself, but by the network of grandees, some secular, some in the Church, who came to the palazzo for concerts, dinners and elegantly high-minded conversations.

Caravaggio: The Card Sharps

Some of the paintings Caravaggio did while living at the palazzo were strangely erotic. Hopefully, they don’t make Cardinals like del Monte anymore. In The Musicians, painted under the influence of del Monte, four barely dressed boys are fit into an impossibly tight picture.

music Caravaggio

Awkward physical proximity is precisely the point. It’s contact painting: thighs and hands and arms all doing something, turning up, plucking grapes and, in the case of Caravaggio himself, at the back grasping his horn. The fact that the dewy youth on the left comes with a pair of Cupid’s wings is hardly more than a non to allegory, a gesture that is a transparently unconvincing alibi against raised eyebrows in the plazzo. This is, after all, a cardinal’s residence.

Eventually, Caravaggio’s big break came. He was commissioned to paint the Matthews, which would be, by far, the biggest painting he had ever done and, more importantly, it would be the most visible. Caravaggio was assigned to paint Matthew on the chapel wall in the French church of San Luigi. This would also be the first time that Caravaggio was painting something that was not entirely under his control. A french cardinal, Mathiew Cointrel, left detailed instructions on how the scene — of martyrdom and the calling of the tax collector by Jesus — should be handled. Caravaggio knew that this job would be the making or breaking of him as an artist.

Caravaggio Matthew


Still curious? You can read Simon Schama’s book, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series (based on the book). While you’re at it, pick up E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.